Fired, furloughed or locked out - what are the odds?

Tuesday - 8/27/2013, 2:00am EDT

Federal workers are different things to different people. At times — like when you get mail during a snowstorm or avoid bad weather in a long flight, or have your property, or life, saved by a firefighter — feds can be heroes.

At other times, like when you get a midyear letter from the IRS, the hero thing disappears.

Some people see feds as protectors and defenders. Others see a sea of bureaucrats anxious to preserve and extend the Nanny State.

To some politicians jockeying for advantage or reelection, civil servants are chips in a very high-stakes poker game.

August and September are traditionally the time when politicians, pundits and number-crunchers play poker using popular federal programs and (currently) unpopular federal workers as chips.

In addition to the threat of a government shutdown, there is the as-yet-unknown impact of a second year of sequestration-triggered reductions and the possibility of further defense cuts — all being considered even as politicians sift through various military options against Syria.

There is shutdown talk because some members of Congress — mainly Republicans in the House — want to delay or kill off portions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Many experts say a shutdown is unlikely. Many of the same experts said it couldn't happen in the winter of 1995-96. Except it did.

Sequestration only kicked in a few months ago, in March. But it resulted in more than half the federal workforce being furloughed one or two days per pay period. That prompted a tidal wave of requests for interest-free $1,000 loans that swamped the Federal Employees Education and Assistance Fund's resources. FEEA is a feds-helping-feds charity that also receives large corporate donations from GEICO, Blue Cross-Blue Shield, LTC Partners and others.

The largest and most lengthy number of furloughs naturally hit the biggest — and most visible to the public — agencies like Defense, the Internal Revenue Service and Housing and Urban Development. The tiny Merit Systems Protection Board is flooded with the equivalent of several thousand why-me? furlough appeals for each of its workers. Congress has been off duty all month and won't return until after Labor Day. If it resumes its normal three-day (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) schedule that will give it about 12 days to do something, or nothing, before the start of the fiscal year.

The most recent card on the table is from a Defense planning document obtained by Bloomberg News. It indicated that Defense could be forced to RIF (fire) 6,272 workers. Most of the employees are with the Defense Contract Management Agency (1,500). Army would eliminate 2,100 slots (with real people in them) and Navy would deep-six 2,672 people.

Note: Two inside-baseball notes about politics, and the media in Washington.

  • In the media, when we get a tip or story, it is a major scoop. When another news organization (in this case Bloomberg) beats us all and gets a good story, it is considered a leak!

  • A document that said Defense might have to fire at least 6,000 employees is one thing. But as Pentagon planners learned during the Vietnam years, using precise numbers — like at least 6,272 — rather than saying "around 6,000" seems to give it more weight with the public and press.
We won't know what's going to happen until it happens. But the impact of each potential threat — whether it is a shutdown, more furloughs or layoffs — will be different. And the cost to you, as a taxpayer and a federal worker, will be different depending on which course of action the politicians take. Or simply let happen.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

Compiled by Jack Moore

Ancient Romans frequently used urine (which over time decays into ammonia) to launder clothing .

(Source: Smithsonian Magazine)


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